What banjo brands and models are considered great for classic banjo playing?

Hi everyone,

I have recently been bitten by the classic banjo bug.

I currently have a Deering Artisan Americana banjo with a 12” pot.

I ordered some LaBella strings, a bridge from Joel Hooks, and the Frank Bradley book. Hopefully, this will be adequate for me to get started.

Since I do not know much about classic banjo, I was wondering what brands and models of banjos are considered to be great for this style? What would be considered a great banjo to own and play (vintage or contemporary) by a competent player of this style?

Thanks,

Milwaukee Matzen

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For what it is worth, the FVE “sound post” that Nick mentioned was, as far as I can tell, not removed or a “special effect” device.

The “sound post” concept was popular with ABF members.  I have them in my FVE banjos, and Gariepy FVE model, as well as a few others.  I don’t take them out for the most part.

I would not call them “stuffing” though.

I don’t know when FVE started using those but I suspect it was in the late 1930s or 1940s.

I would not think Van Eps had enough room inside his banjo for "stuffing" with the dogs bowl and the suspended hoop and bent dowel etc etc etc , besides it would probably have come tumbling out through the hole in the vellum  :- ) 

Joel Hooks said:

For what it is worth, the FVE “sound post” that Nick mentioned was, as far as I can tell, not removed or a “special effect” device.

The “sound post” concept was popular with ABF members.  I have them in my FVE banjos, and Gariepy FVE model, as well as a few others.  I don’t take them out for the most part.

I would not call them “stuffing” though.

I don’t know when FVE started using those but I suspect it was in the late 1930s or 1940s.

I would like to chip in with a few words, because I have the feeling that Nick and Jody are talking about slightly different aspects of the same thing.

To show what I mean, I would like to take another example in a field where I am more "informed", for a lack of better words.

Say someone wants to start playing baroque music on the violin. One of the first questions would be: "do baroque violin players play on gut strings?" The short answer to that would be: "Yes". Because most people today do that and all historic sources (that I know of) only talk about gut strings.

Another interpretation of the question could be: "do I have to put gut strings on my violin to play baroque music?" The answer to that would be: "No, of course not. You play with what is most pleasing to you"

Somehow I get the feeling that Jody answered the first version of the question and Nick the second. And both are equally right! :-)

I'm sorry if I butted in where my nose doesn't belong. Just wanted to "add my mustard", as they say here in Germany (sort of like "give my two cent").

Thank you for your mustard, Par. You got it right.  I was addressing the question about what the norm is.  My answer was descriptive not prescriptive.

This is Fred Van Eps' actual banjo.  It is currently owned by Robert Van Eps' grand daughter.

And this is "meal ticket"

Wow! That’s very cool! There is quite a lot going in there!

Joel Hooks said:

This is Fred Van Eps' actual banjo.  It is currently owned by Robert Van Eps' grand daughter.

And this is "meal ticket"

Note that the busy-ness inside the banjo is designed to make the banjo more focussed and cutting. It's the very opposite of neo-old-time pillow stuffing which  makes  the banjo less focussed and more muddy.

Joel Hooks said:

This is Fred Van Eps' actual banjo.  It is currently owned by Robert Van Eps' grand daughter.

And this is "meal ticket"

Did Van Eps favor the sound of this setup? Or, was it setup this way more for the audience and for recording? 

I can't speak for FVE, but I like mine that way.  Jody is 100% correct.  The "Sound Post" (that is what he called it) takes some overtones away and makes the banjo clearer.

Plastic heads have made the lights obsolete.

I well remember that discussion with Van Eps grand daughter where she posted on the HO and the oohs and ahs of all who saw it, any body have an update of where that banjo was sent for cleaning/setting up and what is happening with it today ? I am well aware of what Jodys comments were intended for I would still however step back from making such pronouncements as "classic banjoists never stuff!" Nobody can possibly know the answer to that one ! re the "sound post" since it sits against the vellum it must have some muting effect by preventing that vellum from freely vibrating ,albeit by design, a banjo head is designed to vibrate across its entire surface and anything that interferes in any way with that must be classified as a mute ! Champagne corks do the same, I received a bottle of Moet and Chandon for Xmas and intend to try this experiment myself since through my reading it seems champagne corks are better than any old wine cork see ? I can be elitist too ! I could never hold my head up if some fellow banjo player saw a cork from a bottle of chateau Tesco 2019 bargain basement plonk !

Joel Hooks said:

I can't speak for FVE, but I like mine that way.  Jody is 100% correct.  The "Sound Post" (that is what he called it) takes some overtones away and makes the banjo clearer.

Plastic heads have made the lights obsolete.

Does anyone know how many Van EPS banjos are out there? I seem to remember seeing them pop up for sale every now again years ago. Not so much these days.

There were 24 “flush frets” made by FVE.  Included in that number are two necks that he made to fit on Bill Bowen’s Stewart banjos.

I know of two Van Eps model flush fret banjos that were made by Gariepy (you can search BHO for “Gariepy Van Eps Flush Fret” to read that story).  It is possible that he made more but I only ever heard of two actually being shipped.  Gariepy did stiff at least one ABF member that paid for one but never got it.  He advertised them for nearly a decade but they were very expensive with a nonexistent market.

I also know of a kinda rough prototype flush fret neck fitted to a recording banjo rim, likely made by Gariepy.

As far as his production banjos, those were production so there is a number of them floating around.  Lots of variants including the “hole in the head” resonator version.

Be advised, they are big banjos.  28.5” scale with a 12” rim.



Milwaukee Matzen said:

Does anyone know how many Van EPS banjos are out there? I seem to remember seeing them pop up for sale every now again years ago. Not so much these days.

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